Anzac Day and Memorialisation

Anzac day always fills me with deep melancholy. It’s that annual combination of personal missing of my father, a WW2 Vet, autumn leaves falling, and that deeper sadness that comes from the stories and legends of the Australian/New Zealand experience in battle, particularly those relating to the soldiers who fought in the Great war, WW1. We can talk about personal sacrifice, the fallen, and repeat the usual psalms on this day but we can’t remember what we haven’t experienced. I don’t attend morning ceremonies on ANZAC day but I always spend time visiting small suburban and town war memorials whenever I’m travelling around the Australian countryside. After reading the list of names of the fallen, it becomes evident that in some country towns, a whole generation of related fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins were removed from families. And when I think of these young men, I recall the history, again with deep sadness, of the calculated way they were used as colonial cannon fodder for a cause that was not their own- the fallen in the fields of France and Belgium, the slaughtered youth at Gallipoli. On this day, let’s also remember those who returned, the gas poisoned and shell shocked, the wounded, the legless and armless, those who could never love again, or be loved, those who lost their hearing, their sight, the mentally disturbed, the haunted, those with the shakes and post traumatic stress before that condition had a name, the men living out their remaining years in soulless suburbs or country towns, as life moved along often without them, forgotten by the governments of the day, their war medals or moth eaten slouch hat tucked in the back of an old wardrobe, the men whose names are not listed on the shrines of remembrance, and the sadness that they carried deep inside and tried so hard to forget.

And on this day, I often read the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;He soon died;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anzac Day 2016. My Mantelpiece Shrine

My Shrine
My Shrine

I’m not particularly nationalistic and neither was he. Dad marched every year on Anzac day, mainly to catch up with his old mates from his WW2 army battalion, followed by a few beers together afterwards at a pub in the city, a once a year activity for him as he was not a pub person. As the years passed, the veterans’ numbers thinned, and then he passed too. I wonder if any men still remain from his unit.

My shrine in the living room shows Dad as a young digger in his army uniform. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, of slight build and height, with a ready toothy smile. He also had graceful elongated hands. He wore that uniform for five years, the time he spent in New Guinea, but I don’t recall seeing it as a child. He did keep the hat. Dad wrote to my mother every day throughout the war. She would often receive 5 letters at once. He spent his evenings hand drawing and colouring little cartoons of everyday army life onto envelopes. He also drew extras to sell cheaply to other chaps who were keen to impress their loved one back home. Dad was so artistic. Mum stored all these wartime envelopes in an album and I loved looking at them as a kid. He also kept his old coloured pencils in his gentleman’s robe along with the medals and a few other small mementos from the war. I can still smell his wardrobe today, the faint whiff of tobacco, a slight musty aroma, and see the gleam of his war medals hanging from short lengths of colourful striped cloth.

My mother recently had replicas made of my father’s WW2 medals – five sets in all – which were distributed to his five male grandchildren. The rest of us, his three daughters and three granddaughters, missed out! So I grabbed this little photo of Dad in his uniform and made my own shrine and surrounded him with some of the things that he loved- smalls rocks and gemstones and his ‘long life’ pendant, the one he wore every day for 29 years from the age of 60, the one I gave him for his birthday.  I don’t know if Dad would like all the other paraphernalia close by, broken bits of a fire damaged Buddha and old Chinese wooden panels, probably not, but he would love those gemstones. I must add another little crystal to his shrine today. Sometimes I scatter the petals of a flower on the mantelpiece or light a scented candle. There aren’t many solemn or mindful moments in my life but this is one of them.

Past Anzac Day posts:


That Man in the Picture, Anzac Day 2015

Who was that young man in the picture, that handsome young soldier dressed in heavy khaki, and the little boy beside him, attired in his best blue and white sailor suit? Was the cherubic infant his brother or his son? Was the photo taken just before the young man left home for the Great War? He smiles at the camera, blue-eyed and smooth skinned, his strong chin handsomely cleft, a gentle gaze invoking innocence and expectation. Pride. Readiness to go and help the “Mother Country” in Gallipoli, France or in Flanders’ Fields.

I found the photograph of this man in an old wares shop in Quorn, South Australia, in the mid 1970s. It was sepia toned, taken in 1915, but I always saw the colours that weren’t there, the khaki, the bronzed badge, the bairn’s pink cheeks and blond curls. He used to gaze serenely from my wall, slouch hat shadowing his brow, and spoke to me in times of loneliness, restoring my balance with his ever-present calm.

Someone, perhaps his parents, paid dearly for that studio portrait and framing. Beautifully carded, simply framed in austere honeyed oak, worn shiny with time. Why was the portrait discarded? Did he die somewhere in that horrific war? Were his elders left, like so many country folk, to struggle against nature on those arid plains, sowing wheat and grazing sheep, without a son to assist them? Did his family line just disappear?

I think of that man often, I can still see his face. I am the keeper of his memory.



My post last Anzac Day, 2014.    Commemorating Slaughter with a Biscuit.

Anzac Day 2014. Commemorating Slaughter with a Biscuit?


“We are about to commemorate the slaughter of millions of young men between 1914 and 1918.”

So begins John Hirst’s provocative piece on Anzac Day and its place in military history since then. Hirst recommends reading James Brown’s new book, Anzac’s Long Shadow, as well as Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs for an understanding of what this legend really means:

“The hidden history of Anzac is the lives of the men who returned severely wounded and handicapped. The government supported them, but the daily burden was borne by their families.”

 Hirst suggests that:

” the second way to sidestep the commemoration of death in battle is to check out your family history for men who served and came home alive, even if damaged. The dead are commemorated in graves tended by the War Graves Commission. The tombstones of returned men usually have no mention of their war service.”

In recognition of wartime’s lost and ruined lives, those who were killed, maimed or psychologically damaged in WW1 and all subsequent wars, I perform a few rituals on Anzac Day (April 25th).

Firstly, I think of my father and his service in WW2.  On most Anzac Days, especially in his later years, he marched with his mates from his army regiment, not to commemorate Gallipoli, or the mythical values of the digger,  but in memory of the efforts of those who fought in WW2 and to recall the five years he spent in the jungles of New Guinea.  Below: My parents during wartime.


Secondly, I play a few important tunes. I recommend that you listen to these, if you aren’t already familiar with them: Eric Bogle’s moving folk song,” And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda and  Redgum’s  I was only Nineteen,  a lyrical exploration of naive young men at war and the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam Vets.

The foundation of historical analysis is interpretation, no less so in the case of war.  As a student of Australian History in 1971, during the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Australia,  I became a pacifist like many of my fellow students. Consequently, concepts such as patriotism – and by extension, the Anzac Day march, and military legends surrounding the day- were seen as jingoistic and nationalistic.  Latrobe University’s history school was a thriving and intellectually exciting place to be.  I vividly recall my father being annoyed and upset at the tone of the final examination questions, and took to my copy of the 1971 examination paper with a forceful pen!  My views have mellowed since then, and so did his!

These days I think of the fallen and injured from all wars, including the current war in Afghanistan. And, like many others, I would prefer that more of the Anzac Day budget be spent on the rehabilitation of soldiers ( Have Anzac celebrations become a military Halloween?) and that the huge pool of profit from RSL ( Returned and Services League ) gambling dens be questioned.

And finally, I make a batch of Anzac biscuits, and in this activity I am unbending in the interpretation of the recipe. There will be no added chocolate, nuts or heaven forbid, quinoa!! The sugar is white, not brown. And they must be flat.  I make them as my mother and grandmother made them before me.

Image The recipe below is the one that my mother has always used and comes from the Margaret Fulton book of the sixties, who , no doubt, got it from her mother.  My mother, now 91 years old and featured in the first photo above, still makes them this way. Hers are always the best. Her hint for baking great Anzacs? Don’t use baking paper, it dries out the biscuits, and heat the oven to slightly under moderate. 

The Recipe.

Heat oven to 150c/300 f.

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 3/4 cups desiccated coconut
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 125 grams butter
  • 1 Tablespoon golden syrup ( not maple syrup)
  • 2 Tablespoons boiling water
  • 1/1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate soda
  1. Mix the dry ingredients
  2. Melt the butter and golden syrup over gentle heat, then add the boiling water and bicarb soda. Watch it fizz.
  3. Add wet ingredients to dry, mixing thoroughly.
  4. Drop heaped teaspoons onto greased trays. Flatten slightly.
  5. Bake for approx 20 minutes. (check as they cook for doneness)
  6. Cool on trays for a few minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely

Store in tins. Image For another great article on this topic from a brilliant historian, see Don Watson’s article from the Monthly, 2008.  If you can’t read it all now, save it for a rainy day.